It's difficult at first, but these tips from experts can help.

By Katie Bingham-Smith
Photo by Getty Images

Two years ago, my ex-husband and I decided to separate just as the holidays were approaching. We waited to tell our kids the news after the season—it seemed like it would be too much to put the tree up, then watch my then-husband move out during what was supposed to be one of the best times of the year.

It was a lot harder than we both anticipated. Trying to keep your game face on during the holidays while you know your family will be forever changed is heart-wrenching at best.

And we had no idea what the following year would bring as we tried to navigate our way through being two divorced parents with teenagers over the holidays. It was, by far, one of the most difficult times for my kids and me, and we are all hoping this year will feel a bit better.

If you are a parent and this is your first holiday post-divorce, I can tell you it will be hard. There's no way around it. It will be a time of mourning even if you think you've moved past that.

But I can also offer some advice from my own experience as well as some experts Family Circle had the pleasure of speaking with.

Patra Sinner, attorney and board-certified family law specialist, shared with me some tips on how to manage stress and anxiety during your first holiday season after a divorce:

Create new traditions.

It's important for you and your teens to branch out a bit and take your mind off the things you used to do by discovering some new ways to share the holidays. When I was married, every year my ex-husband and I would take the kids out and cut down a tree at a local farm. After we divorced, I decided I wanted things easier, less messy, and the thought of taking my kids out and trying to recapture what used to be was a such a sad reminder, I couldn't do it.

Instead, I purchased a fake white tree I'd always wanted, and we spent the evening setting it up and decorating it. When it was time to take it down, I kept all the lights on it, and set it in our basement storage closet.

While the new tradition felt a little strange, clean up was so nice and easy and I'm so looking forward to not having to string lights on a tree again. This year, we will bring it upstairs, plug it in, and start the decorating.

Be flexible in co-parenting.

Another important tool is to help your teens cope with the holidays is to accommodate traditions. This might be a struggle for you and your ex-spouse, but when you remember your kids' feelings are front and center it will make it easier.

For example, let your ex have the kids on an unscheduled night to allow them to take the kids to a special play or concert they love to attend each year, if that is the only available time. Just because you all aren't able to go doesn't mean your kids should have to stop going and enjoying a beloved tradition.

Don’t overcompensate.

Certified divorce coach Prudence Henschke says it's super important not to stress yourself out and create more anxiety around this time of year by accepting too many invitations or overcompensating with expensive gifts you will regret buying later.

"What kids need most is your love and attention" she says, and if you are frazzled and trying to keep up with it all, it's impossible to be truly present for them.

Help teens pick a gift for your ex.

Another tip that will settle some of the angst surrounding this time of year is to help your kids make or buy a gift for your ex-spouse. While it may not be at the top of your priority list, doing this can show your kids what the holidays are really about. "Taking the higher road, while not easy, is the best approach," says Henschke.

Get your teens involved.

Henschke also suggests asking your teenagers to come up with some new traditions. I’m doing it this year. "It will take the focus away from comparing this year to last year and help show them it not better or worse, just different," she says.

Find time for self-care.

Hanschke also stresses the importance of "making time and space to take care of yourself during the holidays." This can really impact the way you handle things when you are with your kids and all the challenges that come with this being your first experience navigating your way through the holidays post-divorce.

My kids are going with the dad to spend a few days in New York City. While I'm sad and will miss them terribly, I figure it would be the perfect time to schedule a massage and a cookie swap and spend the rest of the time reading and relaxing so I will be recharged when they return.

Lean on your friends and family.

It's also important to remember you are going to feel lonely and sad this time of year, especially when your kids aren't with you. Henschke reminds us it is normal to feel this sense of loss and recommends surrounding yourself “with people who support you, comfort you, and lift you up during this time."

Give back to those in need.

During those times when everyone else is busy with their own lives, volunteering is a great way "to feel a sense of purpose and the joy of contributing to the community," says Henschke.

Be patient.

Marriage and family therapist Emily Cosgrove reminds us it is a sensitive time, and we need to be gentle with ourselves and our teens. "Remind yourself and your family to be patient with each other as you grieve changes within the family," she says. It's okay to feel sad and have this season feel different than any other because it is different. You are going to experience many different thoughts and experiences and it's going to be important you give each other room to talk about it.

I really wish I'd know some of these tips and tools to find my way through the holidays last year with a bit more grace. But I know this year will be a bit better and so will the next.

Surviving the holidays after your marriage has ended is extremely hard on you and the kids, but it can be done while still capturing some of the gifts this season has to offer—it just might look a little different from now on.